by Laura Meemken
My shoulders tense as the door slams behind my father. He’s late again and mom will be mad, though she won’t say so. She’ll just stir the soup faster and bang the dishes in the sink before washing them. Just a typical Tuesday.
I mark my place on the Calculus assignment and peer over my glasses.
“Hey Dad,” I offer carefully.
He looks over me at the TV, goes straight upstairs to change his clothes as he always does, and the dish banging intensifies. The scene never ceases to amaze me: my mother’s masterful demonstration of passive aggressiveness and my father’s unsurpassable ability to ignore it.
Dinner is mostly silent, as usual. I chew nervously, anticipating father’s next question for me. My mother’s eyes do not leave her food though she is barely eating. My younger sister doesn’t dare make a peep as she twirls her fork in her mashed potatoes.
“Did you get your English grade straightened out Penelope?”
He leans into the table, throwing the command my way like a dagger. He looks especially tired today.
“Uh yeah…well sort of…she’s going to let me rewrite the essay portion of the exam.”
Father scoffs. He looks over my head at the TV again.
“How much can that raise your grade?”
“Yeah I know…it’s just…that’s my only option I guess.”
“Well it’s your grade, I guess,” he says disapprovingly.
After helping mom with the dishes I finally get to escape to my favorite place, my room. I select Taylor Swift on iTunes and turn it down before collapsing on my bed. My favorite time of day is my time alone in the evening. Though it never seems to last long.
“Penelope,” yells a taunting three year-old voice, coming from my seven year-old sister.
My sister Paige is going through this phase of talking like a toddler. I find it incredibly annoying but mom says to just ignore it. My mother seems to attribute much of what my sister does to her learning disability and also seems to believe the school is taking care of everything.
“I don’t converse with toddlers,” I yell back in a sing-song tone, waiting for her to correct herself, which she always does.
“Can I come in please?” asks a seven year-old Paige, as she knocks gently on the door.
I let her in and plop back onto my bed. She dives on top of me like she always does.
She giggles as I tickle her neck and then pulls away and paints on a serious expression.
“Esten Engelman still won’t stop making fun of the way I talk.”
She looks down sadly.
“Oh I’m sorry to hear that Paige, you don’t deserve that.”
Paige has a prominent lisp and a few little shits have been bugging her all year about it.
“I thought mom was going to call the school about it,” I continue.
Paige shrugs. I let out a deep sigh.
“Well I’ll talk to her again, okay? Don’t you worry about a thing. And in the mean time, make sure you tell him to cut it out. Say it really loudly okay?”
“I do,” she mutters, looking defeated.
A few minutes later, Paige leaves to play with the neighbor girl and I am finally alone. That is, until there is an aggressive knock at my door. I sit up, startled.
“Uh, come in.”
My father, of all people, kicks the door open and hangs in my doorway, looking pissed off. My heart races, as he typically retreats to the basement after dinner. I can’t remember the last time he was standing in my doorway.
“Penelope, what is this I hear about you quitting the debate team?”
Completely caught off guard, I stumble over my words.
“—-That’s what I thought! No good reason, just laziness!” he barks, while the vein in his forehead protrudes.
“I don’t have time—-“
“—-Enough Penelope! Just don’t come crying to me when you don’t get into any of the colleges on your list.”
He slams the door behind him and the force rattles the string of necklaces hanging from my doorknob. My heart speeds as I try to catch my breath, which I was holding, and try to clear the lump in my throat.
The urge to cry subsides but is replaced by anxiety. I panic more as I anticipate an attack coming on. Not again. Just try to focus on breathing.
My heart seems to be running away from my breath and my breath is pulling it back in a game of tug-of-war. My stomach is watching from the sidelines, becoming more and more ill. My blood has taken over for my brain and is spreading word of panic throughout my body, creating a furnace in which all sense of reason is being incinerated. There is pain in my chest now, more so than in the past.
This will pass…this will pass…don’t fight it…allow it to pass…just breathe…you are not dying.
It’s amazing how difficult it can be to believe my own words, even ones often rehearsed.
You are not dying…allow it to pass. You…are…not… But it feels like I’m dying.
My vision becoming blotchy, head becoming heavy, body boiling over, I surrender. The world is silent and my mind slowly clears, but the emptiness that follows the panic is always worse. The experience of being numb makes me want to crawl out of my skin.
I pull my sleeve up my wrist and run my finger over the many scars I have left there in the past. It used to help, the whole cutting thing, but it stopped working and now I get to wear long sleeves in 90 degree weather. I trace my finger over the set of scars that ironically looks like a “P.” Of course. “Perfect Penelope,” as I’ve been referred to at school. A perfect reminder that there is no escaping this mark.
The next day after school, I ask my friend Thomas drop me off at the end of my long driveway. He has offered to drop me off at the front door but I like to approach with caution. As I approach the house, I suddenly notice my father’s car in the driveway.
Shit! Why is he home?
As I reluctantly approach the front door, I hear my dad and mom yelling at one another.
“I love how you assume it’s all my fault—”
“—Am I supposed to believe that your last three bosses have been all been assholes?”
The sound of dishes being smashed pierces my ears. I turn around, sneak down the front steps and try to tune out the rest of the words as I head back down the driveway to wait for my sister to get off the bus. The scars on my wrist seem to burn as if taunting me. Just be good, Perfect Penelope.